Don’t get me wrong! I’m not one of those radical people who claim that silent cinema is intrinsically superior to films containing dialogue and recorded sound effects. Is there anyone so nutty and doctrinaire? But I could certainly masquerade as one; I would have a great deal of fun making the arguments and perversely provoking people. But, nah, I actually love sound as part of the cinematic experience, and, if I’m being honest, even avoid watching silent movies a lot of the time, despite loving so much about them, precisely because they lack sound. That said, by the same token, sound is not an intrinsic improvement, either. A shitty talkie is not better than a silent masterpiece. To think so is to be little better than a child. There remain several silent movies that, to my mind, were not exceeded in quality by their remakes during the sound era. And this is a short list. I’m certain there are others, and have little doubt you will tell me what they are!
Alice in Wonderland (1903 , 1910 or 1915)
Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass were among my favorite books as a child, and certainly among the books I have read and re-read the most times over the course of my life. It’s unsurprising, though by no means a given, that I’m not completely satisfied with ANY screen version, bar none. Almost every version I’ve seen is either missing what I consider to be essential elements, or adds inessential ones.
In the sound era, many or most of the worst versions make the mistake of imitating the all-star 1933 Paramount one, and casting the entire production (even the small parts) with stars, transforming the experience into a game of “spot the celebrity”. Also, many of the characters in the book are little better than supernumeraries in Alice’s story. In a tale that ought to go from crisis to crisis with a good deal of momentum, it doesn’t do to have our focus constantly arrested by the fact that minor characters are being played by recognizable actors. “Hey, isn’t that –” couldn’t be more beside the point.
Above all, there is the cultural tone. There couldn’t be a more English, or Victorian, or English-Victorian, cultural product than Alice in Wonderland. The very atoms that compose it are English in nature. English manners are lampooned, sometimes honored (mostly by Alice), sometimes violated (by everyone else). The turns of phrase are English. The humor is English. English nursery rhymes are referenced. John Tenniel’s illustrations depict an English world. It is a world with an English class structure: Kings, Queens, Duchesses, Footmen, Maids. The English Garden is a THING. An English country house is a THING. Tea and cakes are a THING. So, to me, if you attempt to Americanize it or even modernize it, if you attempt to bring it closer to US, you are sorely fucking it up. I don’t know what it is anymore at that stage. It’s like Bob and Ray’s “Hershey Bar with Almonds — Hold the Almonds”. You are transplanting something that is not translatable in that fashion. It belongs in its own idiom. It you want to tell something else, tell something else.
Of the existing sound versions (and I’ve seen almost all of them), my favorite is probably the 1951 Disney animated version. But the three silent versions come closest to doing it for me. The first (1903) was made in Edwardian England, two years after the death of Victoria — it’s not likely that the film makers would get the culture wrong! This version (by Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stow), as well as the 1910 Edison version by Edwin S. Porter, and the 1915 six reel version, all have something close to the art direction experience I’m looking for, although in cruder realization than would be ideal. All have charming, simple special effects of the sort we associate with Méliès. The 1903 and 1910 versions are both about 10 minutes long, about average for the time. At six reels, the 1915 version plays at between 40 and 50 minutes long depending on what copy you’re watching and the projector speed. This version is my favorite. Alone perhaps of any version it gives us a proper flavor of English countryside at the outset. With its greatest length, it is able to tell more of the book (including, perhaps excessively, “You Are Old, Father William”) whereas then ten minute versions are at best truncated “greatest hits”. And of the three, the 1915 version has the best make-up and costumes. Really, I don’t know why anyone would ever decide to make a movie of this story and NOT research and emulate these early versions. You might just as well stay home.
Quo Vadis? (1901, 1913 or 1924)
Deservedly, there are numerous screen versions of Henryk Sienkiewicz’ 1896 Roman/ Christian epic novel Quo Vadis?. Rather idiotically, the Wikipedia entry for the 1951 Hollywood film informs us that “there was a 1924 silent version”, but doesn’t mention at all the landmark 1913 one, also made in Italy, which was considered by many to be the first feature length film and the one which inspired Americans like D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille to try the same feat (expanding films, which were typically only a reel or two at the time, to feature length). The 1913 version of Quo Vadis? ran two hours and had thousands of crowd extras, and spectacular sets, which was nothing to sneeze at, at that early date. And even THIS was not the first one. Pathe Freres had produced a three minute version in 1901, just five years after the book came out.
I’ve only seen the the two later Italian ones, but find them both superior viewing to the 1951 remake, starring that colossal stiff Robert Taylor. Film-makers in the 1920s understood how to film decadence in a way that film-makers in the 1950s (particularly American film-makers) were terrified of. The Technicolor of the 1951 version is gorgeous, but the script and acting are tedious, and the running time of nearly three hours doesn’t help. Again, it’s not the genre per se. For example, I prefer De Mille’s talking version of The Sign of the Cross more than the 1914 original. But thrills, not leaden dialogue, are what one wants from a story, even an edifying period piece like this.
The Squaw Man (1914)
Based on a 1905 Broadway play by Edwin Milton Royle, Cecil B. DeMille’s landmark 1914 western is often thought of as the first American feature, and certainly the beginning of Famous Players-Lasky, which became Paramount. Not to mention the launch of DeMille’s own career. He was to direct no less than three versions of The Squaw Man. He made a second silent one in 1918, which is now lost. And a talkie version in 1931. The talkie stars Warner Baxter, but somehow lacks the magic of the original starring Dustin Farnum, and proved to be a money loser at the box office. It’s not to say a sound version of this story couldn’t be made and do well (though the racial aspects that are central to this particular story are problematic). Sound film was still crude in 1931. But there are several originally silent westerns such as The Virginian and The Spoilers, which were later remade in sound versions many times, with those later versions comparing favorably with the original. But third time was not a charm with The Squaw Man.
The Mark of Zorro (1920) and Don Q, Son of Zorro (1925)
Douglas Fairbanks was the original swashbuckler, and his Zorro films were the very first (the story on which they were based had been published in 1919), and The Mark of Zorro happens to be the first movie ever released by United Artists. But these aren’t WHY these are the definitive Zorro movies. After all, there were later versions of The Three Musketeers and Robin Hood that surpass Fairbanks’ versions. But, I think Fairbanks owns the part of Zorro in a way that Tyrone Power (1940) and Frank Langella (1974) do not. And naturally the Antonio Banderas versions (1998) and (2005) rank high because of their star. Yet there is something about silence that particularly suits the story. We remember visuals: a mask, a cape, a broad-brimmed hat, a sword in motion, a man on horseback in the night. I’m not sure ANY dialogue, let along banal dialogue, can improve on a silent telling, let alone one starring Fairbanks.
Peter Pan (1924)
Today’s best known versions of J.M. Barrie’s timeless story and characters are in Walt Disney’s 1953 animated version and the 1954 Broadway musical with Mary Martin (which was also presented on television). I’ll not gainsay either of these — who could? They’re both, like their source, full of magic. But Herbert Brenon’s 1924 silent film version starring Betty Bronson, strikes me as even closer to that source magic, and is far and away my favorite. There is something about the ELEMENTAL nature of early cinema that suits Barrie’s universe, which was, after all conceived in the same age. It’s magic, but it is stage magic. It is the magic of the two dimensional moon cut-out, and the in-camera special effect. And the art direction in this version is so bloody gorgeous.
The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
I hope there won’t be too much argument on this one! Pretty self evident, I’d say. Not only do Lon Chaney and his make-up OWN the role for all time, but Rupert Julian’s storytelling is so elegant and simple and vivid. The 1943 Technicolor remake with Claude Rains is interesting but not very scary or memorable. The 1986 musical and 2005 film version thereof have their virtues, but are sort of a different animal — apples to oranges. Among non-singing versions, the silent Phantom of the Opera is THE Phantom of the Opera. (I debated whether to include Nosferatu and the Barrymore Jekyll and Hyde and the Chaney Hunchback of Notre Dame here as well, along much the same lines. These are horror movies that stand up alongside any talking version as watchable cinematic experiences, and which always will. But the difference here is that in each of those cases, the talking versions are also worth talking about and comparing and contrasting with the silent one. In these cases, the silent isn’t undeniably superior, merely just as great. You can argue that Nosferatu is best, but I just couldn’t bear to dis Tod Browning’s Dracula in that fashion!) More on the various versions of The Phantom of the Opera here.
The Unholy Three (1925)
I hope there’s no need for much explication here! The original The Unholy Three is quintessential Tod Browning. It was remade as a talkie in 1930 by a different director, and while it’s cool that we get to hear Lon Chaney’s voice for the first and only time, we also have to listen to Harry Earles’, whose German accent was nearly impossible to understand (he’s also the lead Little Person in Freaks). It’s just kind of a redundant and superfluous exercise. The original and true morbid impulse and touch belonged to Browning.
Ben Hur (1907 and 1925)
I list this here for many of the same reasons as Quo Vadis? Yes there is a big budget 1950s color, widescreen remake, unprecedented in cost. But William Wyler’s 1959 version, though it has a better star than Quo Vadis? (Charlton Heston), is three and a half hours long and is mostly full of yawns. Tedious dialogue adds nothing, nor do the sound of cheering throngs during the famous chariot scene. The chariot scene is cool — but so is the one in the 1925 version. The ’25 version also has top Hollywood talent, directed by Fred Niblo, and starring Ramon Novarro, Francis X. Bushman and Betty Bronson. Plus two-strip Technicolor scenes! In no way does it take a back seat to the later version, plus it’s less boring. Ya want an even shorter one? The 1907 version, directed by Sidney Olcott, comes in at around 15 minutes and focuses on the chariot race. Featuring William S. Hart, it was based on the 1899-1900 Broadway play, in turn based on General Lew Wallace’s 1880 book.
The Great Gatsby (1926)
This film is now lost, but I’ve already blogged here about why I suspect that it was probably the best film version. As I wrote, all the subsequent versions for screens big and small fail in major ways. Herbert Brenon (who directed our favorite version of Peter Pan) directed the silent The Great Gatsby, which couldn’t possibly have gotten the time period wrong — it was MADE during the story’s time period! Look at the still above — it captures something I’ve seen in no subsequent version — it looks like a Long Island mansion from the 1920s! And as I said in that earlier post, Fitzgerald’s impressionistic prose asks for some kind of stylization rather than literalism. A silent melodrama would give it just that. It mightn’t have been a masterpiece, but it HAD to have been better than the existing sound versions.
London After Midnight (1927)
The Holy Grail of lost silent horror films, its director Tod Browning remade it as a talkie in 1935 as Mark as the Vampire. To put it charitably, the latter is far from one of Browning’s best films. One is especially outraged by the bait and switch at the end — you’re made to feel a dupe by buying into the movie. I don’t believe this would have happened in the silent version. Silents are less literal, less quotidian, the universe in which the film is set would have appeared just as strange and wonderful after the unveiling (which I won’t spoil for you). Add to this Lon Chaney’s make-up for London After Midnight, which ranks with his greatest, one of the reasons the public has been rabid to get its hands on this lost film for so many decades.
King of Kings (1927)
My reasons are partially aesthetic, partially spiritual, for saying I NEVER want a literal-minded version of the Story of Jesus. Dialogue-driven movies are by definition LITERAL. It makes the whole thing ho-hum, drags the supernatural down into the natural world. There have been some thought-provoking versions, essentially tailor made for supper table arguments, (like Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ), but I feel no need to watch those movies ever again. There are all-star productions like the 1977 tv movie Jesus of Nazareth, which only seem to cheapen the story. My favorite screen version is the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, not just because the tunes are great, but because it is not LITERAL. Silence achieves the same thing. Cecil B. De Mille (who produced and directed the 1927 version of The King of Kings) was great at telling Biblical stories because he understood the need both for visual beauty and for heightened reality. Whereas the 1961 remake, like others of its time, is bloated and misses that fundamental point. If our heart is not in our mouth, if the effect is not uncanny, what are you wasting our time with this particular story for? (I know why — but if it’s worth doing, then it’s worth doing right). It is for this reason that I don’t call DeMille’s 1956 remake of his own The Ten Commandments inferior to his silent original. The man knew how to make a movie.
Sadie Thompson (1928)
I don’t believe I’ll get much pushback on this one. Somerset Maugham’s 1921 short story about a battle of wills between a loose woman and an intense but hypocritical missionary during a layover in Pago Pago has been dramatically adapted many times. It was made into hit Broadway play Rain starring Jeanne Eagels, one many called the definitive performance, but we’ll never know, will we? It was filmed by Raoul Walsh in 1928 as the silent film Sadie Thompson starring Gloria Swanson. In 1932 came a talkie called Rain directed by Lewis Milestone and starring Joan Crawford. And then in 1953 Miss Sadie Thompson starring Rita Hayworth. Critics were unkind about Crawford’s performance in the 1932 version. From where we sit it’s just fine, and we can only guess that she was suffering by the comparisons to Swanson and Eagels. Such tough dramatic territory was new to her and she was acting with Walter Huston, one of the best in the business. She was a little out of her depth. It’s not a terrible part by any means but Sadie was a better part for Swanson than the tightly wound Crawford. The worst of the bunch is the 1953 version which suffers mightily because of the Production Code. It doesn’t rank with the other two.
At any rate, by now I can tell that you’re longing for the silent version of ME, so it’s time for me to pack up these film reels and take it on the road.
For more on silent film please see my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.